With his family visiting Jupiter, Florida, from South Korea for the first time in his professional career, Won-Bin Cho simply wanted to play his best with his loved ones watching. Cho, a 19-year-old Cardinals outfield prospect, wanted to make their near-18-hour journey to see him play professional baseball worthwhile.
He did that with one swing.
In a Florida Complex League game on the Cardinals’ backfields last August, Cho pulled a pitch over the right-field wall, flipped his bat, and trotter around the bases for the first home run of his professional baseball career.
It was the only one he hit in 2022. And it’s made for one of his most memorable moments since he began playing baseball in the U.S. after moving from South Korea.
“It’s a thing that all the baseball players have been dreaming of — playing in the United States,” Cho said through interpreter James Bae during an interview in Jupiter, Florida. “It feels really good, and I’m happy to be playing here because I think I made a dream come true. Every day, I play baseball right here. It’s just like walking on the clouds.”
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Cho was signed by the Cardinals in January 2022 as an international free agent. An 18-year-old at the time of his signing, Cho was the first amateur player from Asia to be signed by the Cardinals. He began the 2022 season in extended spring training at the Cardinals complex and then made his professional debut in the Florida Complex League in June.
His first year as a professional baseball player and first experience living in the U.S. have shaped his daily life.
When he’s not training, the teenager goes to eat with his teammates. He texts his family in Korea every day, and he video calls them at least once a week. He’s still picking up on the English language. He said he is comfortable enough to handle things when he’s at restaurants with his teammates, but non-baseball terminology is something he’s still working on.
He’s learned a few words in Spanish from his Spanish-speaking teammates. How much Spanish?
“Just to say hello,” Cho said in English.
It’s on the field where he feels most comfortable.
“I think I know what to expect,” Cho said through Bae. “I know what will happen here. So I kind of get used to it. I’m very calm, comfortable staying here. I think I’m always prepared for playing baseball here.”
In Cho’s first 26 MiLB games, he hit .211 over 76 at-bats, doubled three times, and homered once. He drew 20 walks and ended the FCL with a .400 on-base percentage. He credited the plate discipline to one of his first instructors.
“When I was young, my father was my coach,” Cho said through Bae. “He always told me, hitting home runs they’re just things that kind of follow you. But the most important thing is the plate discipline. You have to have the ability to track the ball, have your own zone. That’s the most important thing while you’re playing baseball.”
Cho spent part of the past offseason training in Atlanta. He also returned to South Korea where he spent time with his family and made trips to his previous middle school and high school baseball coaches to thank them for helping him. He received a pair of Jordan 1 cleats that he’s used this spring after training with former Giants outfielder Jae-gyun Hwang.
And, through his agency, he got to meet his idol, former All-Star and fellow Korean-born outfielder Shin-Soo Choo.
“I just wanted to try to be like him, try to do the same mechanics as him,” Cho said through Bae.
He headed into the winter with his sights set on improving his power and speed, the latter of which was reinforced after experiencing the pace of play in the U.S.
“Everything was faster. For example, the tempo of the game, the velocity, the mechanics of the pitchers,” Cho said through Bae. “They just get the ball from the catcher, and they just throw it right away. Everything was faster. I had to adjust to the tempo of the game.
“That was really a difficult thing. In Korea, I felt my power and speed, those were kind of like above-average compared to other players in Korea, but here, it was kind of nothing special. I kind of felt that way. I felt I need to improve on those. I need to work on those more.”
Part of his first season was slowed down by rib injuries that occurred on two separate collisions. One came on a collision with the outfield wall as he tracked down a fly ball. The other occurred after he collided with a shortstop as the two converged on a ball.
The missed time was a “disappointing moment” of his season, he said. Being sidelined tested him as he felt mentally ready but wasn’t physically ready. It made him feel like he was “behind” other players and reinforced who he wants to be in 2023.
“I’m always the type of guy that I don’t want to miss any games,” Cho said through Bae. “I want to play every single game. I want to be there. I can compete.”
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